Life (as a euphemism, or possibly better word for, ‘God’) has a way of pulling the rug out from underneath you. I’d usually speak for myself, but I don’t think anyone is going to disagree to be honest; being contradicted, foiled, pleasantly surprised is part and parcel of a universe which, in the end, just isn’t about you and your perceptions.
Take this blog post, for instance. I said that I would try to write more practical posts, full of practice instructions for you to enjoy. My recent practice, though, has been as far from insight practice as you could get, as I will explain. Those little epiphanies or experiences that are so beloved by practitioners, due to the feeling of breakthrough that they cause, have come fairly often recently- but not when I have been meditating deeply, not when I have been praying hardest, but when I have run out of resistance and surrender has occurred entirely without my effort or decision. The rest of the insight, and perhaps what I should value more, has been incredibly mundane, and that’s because stressful times and poor coping has sent me back to basics.
Looks like Maslow was right: I can’t expect transcendence when I’m busy trying to get through the day, ensuring I’m getting enough sleep between shifts, can pay my bills, am completing assignments, and importantly in my case am not overstretching myself or sabotaging the whole thing. The difference is though, that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is starting to look like Ajahn Manapo’s cake metaphor for the Three Trainings of virtue, concentration and insight. You don’t have a cake without a base, in this case sila: all the more ‘mundane’ factors that give the spiritual strength to deal with sometimes shattering insights and experience, such as discipline, kindness, self-respect. The fundamentals are no less spiritual than the culmination of the training, to use a very linear model, and I’m realising my emphasis on insight practice is a very Western ‘skip to the end’ approach, wherein vipassana is valued as a ‘get rich quick’ scheme.
For me, it is infinitely more important right now to get my house in order, and while it in some ways was impossible for me to see that so clearly without a bit of insight, it’s sometimes been a really wild ride. I can’t speak for everyone else, but it seems to me there are people who mainly have insights around kindness, and then there are those who have the perceptual shifts that clobber you around the head, the kind that are much more easy to brag about. On another axis, there are those who have quiet practices, changing every day little by little, or even just having one ‘wham’ moment and waking up to something big after quiet devotion, as compared to people who struggle loudly, have energetic experiences wracking their body, keep having visions and callings and lord knows what else. Of course, each is a continuum, and I seem relatively loud and relatively insight-y. If that seems in any way bragging, maybe it is, but once you know I’ve literally prayed for less of the loud insight and more of the gentle kindness, then you’ll know there’s a different side to it. In short, I’ve been praying for refuge.
And, basically, I had to stop praying, stop meditating. It makes me body and my mind seize up at the moment. It instantly puts me into that place where all the dukkha is, because that’s what contemplative practice does. I’ve been practicing for a while, and so a lot of impermanence, dissatisfaction and emptiness is immediately on display. It hurts, and at the moment I can’t handle it. I don’t have the discipline to face it stolidly, the patience to bear it, the kindness to see it as purifying, the restraint not to spread the shit around when it’s getting nasty, the clear conscience to not personalise it, the humility to be grateful for it. To quote Terry Pratchett as I think I’ve done before: if you want to build castles in the air, you need to have your feet on the ground.
I stopped doing insight practices because they intensified what I was feeling, and a hell of a lot comes under insight practice: even doing breathing exercises that are meant to be calming, for some of us (and certainly me) drop one into vipassana mode. A lot of these funny little loud insights come to me when I’m on the cusp of sleep, and I think that is because it is a very surrendered state: I’m too dozy to fight, basically. There is enough objectivity even when dull and half asleep due to all the practice for awareness to keep relatively sharp; lying in bed, as a bout of anxiety about all the things I ‘had to do’ was being automatically fought by a part of me that needed to squash that anxiety and work out my problems, the phrase came to me: I can’t do this. I knew I was beaten. There was instant relief as the boundaries of my ability were demonstrated to me. I can’t fight off the world, can’t live three lives at once, can’t not have feelings, can’t control everything. With the calm, the urge to practice was lost: why dig for more, when digging produces stress? The contentment was too important. Praying wasn’t surrender; it was demand.
I was able to put this into perspective with the thoughts of the previous few days. When the wheel of practice/life has turned to the really shitty bit, where nothing makes sense, nothing seems to help, and everything is a slog – an entirely perceptual thing, since objectively little changes majorly in my life overnight – there always comes the hunt for something to hold onto. The metaphor of a sailor in a storm grabbing onto the mast of the ship comes to mind. It can be crude or it can be subtle, concrete or abstract: on one hand it could be the seeking for the right tradition to follow, the right God, the right practice to dedicate oneself to, or on the other hand it could be the right drug to give a bit of relief, the right person to lose oneself in. Even a cheese sandwich might be the first thought, never mind anything more gross, but the point is that there is a desire in me for something to do to hold all this dukkha at bay. And, being self-centred as I am, it has to be me doing it.
In actuality, and it comes to me eventually (though it has a maddening habit of drifting off again), the mast is not a refuge. The sailor is still getting lashed by the sea. It’s the urge to cling that is important. Shouting ‘la la la!’ can drown out the sound of someone telling you bad news and give a sense of control, but it doesn’t stop the bad news existing, and eventually you get tired. It is only when I get to the point of needing rescue in my stubbornness that I realise that help has been offered all this time. This is refuge, realising that enlightenment is not about beating dukkha in any way, not about becoming immune to what life throws at me. It’s realising: I can’t do this. The relinquishment of self will, giving up authority to a higher power, trusting God, surrendering the illusion of separateness, seeing the oneness; these are what give surcease. If you go below decks, the storm doesn’t even touch you, and there is no clinging required.
The trouble is getting to the point where I realise that, and I am as yet too stubborn to make any meaningful gesture towards surrender, at least in that really profound way. I’m not up at the top of Maslow’s pyramid, inclining towards transcendence. I’ve got a lot to do in the here and now, really basic stuff, and it feels like it requires constant attention, a real dedication of the kind I usually throw at a silent retreat or a really tough shift at work. The work is kindness, patience, conscience, humility. Perhaps in the end that’s all there will be and I will never practice in the deliberate way I used to again. But when I am doing these ‘little, mundane’ things, there is a sense of being held, and maybe that makes them my prayer for today.